When I walk through Chinatown I often wonder what’s going on upstairs in the historic buildings. Most of the windows are opaque or covered with curtains, making the upper levels seem even more mysterious.
“Everyone knows about Chinatown shops and businesses on the street level. But very few are aware of the revitalization going on upstairs,” says Kiersten Faulkner.
Faulkner is the executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation.
On Thursday, Historic Hawaii Foundation and the Chinatown Improvement District co-sponsored a fundraiser tour for 80 people to visit businesses and residential lofts tucked away on Chinatown’s upper floors.
The tour started at The Tchin Tchin! Bar, a Chinatown upstairs cocktail lounge, for drinks and pupus before participants took off in groups of 20 to walk to four upstairs sites.
“People love to explore. Our goal was to appeal to people’s sense of discovery and show off some of the urban revitalization they might not realize is happening in their own backyard,” says Faulkner.
My friend Jim Waddington says, “We were wowed by what we saw. In the past I had always assumed that the upper stories of most buildings in Chinatown were dusty storage areas. It was exciting to see these upper floors converted into collaborative workspaces, small apartments, and trendy bars.”
Attorney Jeff Portnoy, who was in my group, says, “What folks are doing to these historic buildings is amazing, not just the restaurants but the office and living spaces as well. The buildings have such character.”
One of my favorite upstairs places on the tour was artist Pegge Hopper’s loft apartment above her art gallery at 1164 Nuuanu Ave.
Hopper’s residence is in Pacific Heights. She uses her Chinatown second-floor loft only for parties and for fund-raising gatherings to help her favorite charities.
I love the way the loft apartment is hidden from view from Nuuanu Avenue, where it blends in perfectly with the facades of the other Chinatown buildings.
Yet once you climb the interior stairs you are treated to an urban apartment that looks more like it belongs in New York than Honolulu. It takes you by surprise.
“It’s great party place. We celebrated two of Obama’s victories here. But this November, I am not sure if we will be celebrating anything,” says Hopper, laughing.
Hopper bought the 1910 building 30 years ago. The $135,000 she paid back then might seem inexpensive today but she says the building was a wreck and she had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars more to rehabilitate every inch of it as well as add a third floor.
When she took over the property, a Chinese herbalist and a barber shop were operating out of the ground floor.
Hopper had to gut the structure because so much of it was deteriorating and already damaged. She worked with architect Jim Schmit to rebuild while carefully retaining the building’s historic features, including the brick walls and original roofline.
She says the project turned out to be much more difficult that she imagined. “It was a real eye-opener.”
When large sections of Honolulu are being demolished to make way for featureless high-rises, it is touching to think of how people like Hopper and other Chinatown property owners have endured frustrating permitting delays and structural problems to preserve the historic integrity of their buildings.
Mat D’Ascoli is another owner who can attest to the difficulty of doing historic renovation in Chinatown.
D’Ascoli, an Iolani School graduate, and his father Ed D’Ascoli paid $1.14 million last year to buy the two-story Yim Quon building at 75 N. King Street, next to The Pig and the Lady restaurant.
Ed D’Ascoli is the founder of Xcel Wetsuits, a multi-million-dollar company he founded in a bedroom of his Sunset Beach house. Ed sold the company to Billabong in 2007. The D’Ascolis are now in the real estate development business.
“Don’t call me a developer. Call me someone who loves Chinatown,” says Mat.
He says it has taken them a year to get their permits. And now they are navigating more bureaucratic roadblocks to apply for the 20 percent federal historic rehabilitation tax credit for restoring an historic building in a historic district.
“It is very costly to do the legal work,” he says.
Their building was originally owned by Yim Quon, a merchant who immigrated to Hawaii from Canton, China in 1872. It was one of the first masonry buildings constructed after the Chinatown fire of 1886.
Mat says their original intention was to turn the building into a townhouse residence where he would reside.
Instead, they decided to build two loft apartments on the second floor and lease the ground floor to Chris Kajioka, who was the original chef at the Vintage Cave restaurant and Kajioka’s chef partners, Anthony Rush and Katherine Nomura. Their new restaurant called Senia is expected to open in late September.
On our tour of the Yim Quon building , the Senia chefs served us a dish of jelled young coconut water, ponzu gel, smoked trout roe and pureed avocado that was so slimy looking I hesitated to try it. But the taste was amazingly delicious and refreshing.
Mat says the loft apartment where we sampled the unusual appetizer will be the restaurant’s wine tasting and private dining room instead of a residence. The other loft apartment has already been rented to tenants for $2,500 a month.
Sometimes you can’t win. One of the people on the tour criticized Mat for his painstaking renovations, saying, “You are responsible for raising the rents in Chinatown.”
Mat looks to the day when government is more supportive of efforts to bring back to life “so many abandoned buildings in Chinatown that are just sitting there.”
He says that urban living doesn’t have to mean dwelling in big towers; it can also be in apartments in old buildings filled with history.
Waddington says there is a common thread running through the narratives of all the building owners we visited on the tour: “It’s the tenacity it takes to do their historical remodeling. The frustration of dealing with the city permitting process. The unexpected delays and expense of discovering hidden roof damage and termite-eaten beams.”
He adds, “The bottom line is you need to be extremely motivated to undertake such a project, have the patience of a saint and probably deep pockets! Yet the result is highly satisfying and preserves Chinatown’s sense of place. The difficulty of the work also explains why much of Chinatown’s historical heritage remains in disrepair.”
Lee Stack, president of the Chinatown Improvement District, says that’s the piece of the story that’s missing for many Hawaii residents.
“They come to Chinatown and complain about the disrepair of the buildings and blame landowners for not caring for their property, but the critics don’t realize how difficult and costly the rehab projects are to complete,” she says.
Stack hopes for the day when there is more government support, including a new state historic rehabilitation tax credit that many other states already offer.
“And it is not just a giveaway — people who renovate hire carpenters, plumbers, masons and electricians. They create jobs,” says Stack.
Stack’s mother, Tita Stack, is a pioneer in the Chinatown rehabilitation movement. Thirty years ago, she decided to renovate a building that had been owned by their family since 1910.
It is the L.L. McCandless Block Building at 9 N. Pauahi St., named after its original owner, Tita’s grandfather and Lee’s great-grandfather, Lincoln Loy McCandless.
McCandless and his brothers drilled some of Hawaii’s first artesian wells and created the Waiahole Ditch Tunnel to bring water from the windward side of Oahu to the Ewa plains. McCandless was also a rancher and politician.
The McCandless building was originally a boarding house for single men, with five business and retail operations on the ground floor.
It was still operating as a single-room occupancy for men when Tita Stack decided to renovate it in 1985. She wanted to keep it single-room occupancy, but she says new regulations required her to add a kitchen and bathroom to each 132-square-foot bedroom, which was financially unfeasible. Plus small spaces would have been so crowded with additional structure it would have been difficult to move in them.
What attracted her to do the renovation project was a 3 percent loan the city was offering at the time for rehabilitation projects, and the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit of 20 percent.
“That was a great help. If you can take off 20 percent for every dollar you are spending in construction that’s an enormous benefit,” says Stack.
But she says she had to get through many burdensome requirements to qualify for the tax break, including having to take photographs of everything she did to be reviewed and approved by state and federal authorities.
“It was paperwork and paperwork and more paperwork,” she says.
Now instead of single rooms for bachelors, the upper floors of the McCandless Block Building hold 16 small offices leased to tenants, including photographers, artists and people in the advertising business — almost all of them single practitioners. And another part of the building hold office suites where tenants share common areas.
The social benefit of Stack’s historic building rehabilitation is the tenants with small budgets now have a way to work out of centrally located office spaces they can afford.
Another upstairs Chinatown establishment offering affordable cooperative office space we visited on the tour was Real Office Centers at 1110 Nuuanu Ave. on the corner of Nuuanu and North Hotel Street
Ron McElroy, who founded 11 similar cooperative office centers in California, opened Chinatown’s Real Office Centers location in January.
It rents to 26 business owners upstairs in offices ranging from the smallest, which is shared space on a large table, to a 310-square-foot office. The average-size office is 100 square feet, which rents for $900 a month.
My favorite was the shared office spaces at a big table that rent for $150 a month for use from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For $200 a month you can have access to the tabletop and all shared office services 24/7. You just bring in your laptop and plug in to the internet and printing access.
If you need to make a private phone call, you can take your mobile phone into one of ROC’s phone booths — with no phones in them.
All offices share common areas including meeting rooms, a kitchen and an upstairs terrace for group discussions and parties.
Fete restaurant is already operating downstairs in the building and four more restaurants will be added soon, including Cantina and a pizza restaurant called Brick Fire Tavern.
Celine Casamina, who guided us through the Real Office Centers site, was asked by a tour participant what she found most meaningful about working in a historic building. Her answer, I think, sums up the importance of Chinatown’s historic building renovations.
“The building has seen so much. The fact that it is on notorious Hotel Street. The fact that it has survived two Chinatown fires. I think that’s just huge. It carries a vibe you can’t find anywhere else.”